This Friday, April 19, will mark the 20th anniversary of the fire that brought an end to the Waco siege, after a 50-day-long standoff between David Koresh, his followers and the FBI. Seventy-six people died in the inferno, and the name “Koresh” is forever infamous as a result. What most people don’t know is that a century earlier, there was another Koresh – also American and just as messianic, if less randy.
Cyrus Teed was born in 1839 in New York State. This was a time of great religious ferment in America, and utopians, prophets and saviors roamed the land, founding sects and communes and awaiting the arrival of paradise on Earth. Teed, an army medic by training, was fascinated by these groups and in 1873 paid his first visit to the Harmonists, a communist sect awaiting the return of Christ. The Harmonists were interesting, but he joined another group – the Shakers.
The Shakers were a big deal in the 1870s, and during Teed’s time there were 58 settlements dotted across the United States. Founded by a female Christ, who went by the name of Mother Ann, the Shakers were not only communists, but also celibate, with a tendency to release sexual tension during sacred worship by trembling, shaking, writhing and jumping up and down.
Teed liked the celibacy and communism, but he was developing his own ideas about salvation. He went into private medical practice and treated his patients with something he called “electro-alchemy.” Meanwhile, his updated version of this mediaeval science had led him to make great discoveries. In 1869 he not only discovered how to transmute base metal into gold (allegedly), but experienced a revelation regarding the nature of reality.
What had he discovered? That the Earth is a concave sphere and that we live inside it, on the inner edge; that God is half female; that reincarnation is a cosmic law; that the Bible is a symbolic text which requires a prophet to interpret it correctly and…that Cyrus Teed was that prophet (or messiah, if you will.)
Teed also learned a few other things – that money is evil, heaven and hell are within us, communism is awesome, etc…
And thus, in the early 1880s, ”Koreshanity” was born. The name was derived from his own – Cyrus is the English form of Koresh, the Persian king who released the Jews from Babylonian captivity and was thus acclaimed by the Israelites as a “messiah.”
Cyrus-Koresh now founded his own celibate commune in a third-floor New York City apartment, where he lived with four women. For the next 16 years, however, the sect was a dismal failure, until one day Teed was invited to lecture in Chicago. For some reason many middle-class ladies in that city liked his message. Soon he was living with 126 (mostly female) followers on a pleasant country estate, apparently in celibate bliss, though rumors swirled about his attachment to Mrs. Annie G. Ordway.
But Teed had bigger plans. The Spirit sent him to Florida, where he persuaded an old German immigrant that not only was the Earth concave, but that he should sell Teed 300 acres of prime real estate for $200. Teed summoned 24 Koreshans from Chicago to Florida, where they commenced building the “Guiding Star City” in anticipation of the arrival of 10 million converts.
Things were looking up. The Koreshans had their own post office, sexually segregated dining halls and a bunch of nice houses. They even had time to conduct experiments that apparently proved Copernicus wrong, and that the Earth really is hollow.
But then, alas, it all went awry – though it had nothing do with guns, underage sex, or the FBI. Koresh/Teed got involved in local politics, and this unnerved his neighbors as a couple of hundred Koreshans could affect the outcome of elections in so sparsely populated an area. In 1906 a street fight broke out between the Messiah and a man named Colonel Sellers. Teed received a drubbing, suffering nerve damage, and afterward was often in excruciating pain. In 1908, he died.
The Koreshans believed in reincarnation, but Teed had proclaimed that he could resurrect himself without having to go through all that time-consuming malarkey. The faithful duly waited for three days, by the end of which Teed was rapidly decomposing. So the Koreshans planted him in the ground, had a schism or two, and then limped on into the 1960s, at which point the last handful of surviving Koreshans gifted their property to the state of Florida.
It’s a pretty feeble story, really. This Koresh had no guns, he committed no crimes, he just died and then the community he had founded slowly petered out. Of course, this is a much more common fate for messianic groups than the fiery annihilation of his namesake’s organization in 1993. A charismatic leader persuades a few people for a little while, and then it all just vanishes. It’s better that way. Look – the people of Florida even got a nice park out of their Koresh.